Theresa May suggests her “no deal is better than a bad deal” mantra only applied “in the abstract”

Theresa May suggests her “no deal is better than a bad deal” mantra only applied “in the abstract”

Yesterday afternoon Theresa May appeared before the Liaison Committee of Select Committee Chairs, following what was probably the dullest session of Prime Minister’s Questions that I can remember for a long time, with Brexit not even being raised by a single MP during the 50-minute session.

But Brexit took up most of the 90-minute session with the Committee Chairs and despite someone close to May confiding to me beforehand that she had “no intention of creating any news”, there were several extremely telling exchanges.

To many observers it was the day when May buried her erstwhile mantra that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, with her saying in her opening statement that in her view the “only acceptable” choice before MPs was “to form a majority to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement”.

Then, challenged by Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Chair Sir Bernard Jenkin as to whether she would contemplate leaving the EU of her own choice without a Withdrawal Agreement, she used the following formulation of words:

I stand by the references I have made in the past that no deal is better than a bad deal, but I actually happen to think that we have a good deal. When I first made that reference, I was talking in the abstract — it was at Lancaster House. We now are no longer talking in the abstract; we are talking against the background of a negotiated deal, hard fought, that I believe is a good deal for the United Kingdom. That is why I say — and it remains the Government’s position — that we will continue to work to leave with a deal.”

Watch a clip of that here.

Welsh Affairs Committee Chair David TC Davies later took up the theme in a series of straight questions to which simply no straight answer was forthcoming. I think it’s worth reproducing the transcript to comprehend the level of evasiveness on display:

Davies: If you don’t get what you want, which is the Withdrawal Agreement passed — which I personally, as a loyal backbencher, have always supported — and if we are unsuccessful in persuading our colleagues to support that, would your preference be a no-deal Brexit or to remain in the European Union?

May: My view is we should leave the European Union because that is what the British people…

Davies: But we may not get what we want. We may have to choose between things that we don’t want, and the choice may be…

May: I think that we should leave the European Union, and my job is to try to make sure that we leave the European Union with as much of what we want as possible.

Davies: As we have just agreed, we are not necessarily going to get what we want. You and I would both like the Withdrawal Agreement to pass, but if we don’t get that, would you be happy to support a no-deal Brexit?

May: As I have just said, I believe that the important thing for us is to deliver on the result of the referendum and that means leaving the European Union, but I hope that we can both…

Davies: Can I turn the question around then, because I think this is important? I detect a change in Government policy here. Can I conclude from what you are saying to me that you would not support a no-deal Brexit under any circumstances?

May: The position of the Government is that the best option for the United Kingdom is to leave with a deal. That is what I believe. That is what I’m working for. That is what the Government have been working for.  I believe that we should leave the European Union. I believe that it is important to deliver on the result of the referendum. I believe we’re also in a set of circumstances where Parliament has made it clear that in the circumstances where it looked as if no deal was happening, Parliament would act again to try to ensure that there wasn’t a no-deal situation. I would have hoped that we could all just agree that we recognise, as you do, that the Withdrawal Agreement doesn’t give everybody what they want, but that actually leaving with it is the best option for the UK.

There then followed another to and fro between Davies and the Prime Minister where again no question was knowingly answered:

Davies: Do you think that you have been undermined by members of your own Cabinet who have suggested semi-publicly that we couldn’t leave without a deal?

May: Parliament has said that they don’t want us to leave without a deal. That is the reality.

Davies: But members of your Cabinet — do you think they have undermined you?

May: I think that what is important is that we work to deliver Government policy, which is that we leave — that the preference is to leave with a deal and we work to leave with a deal.

Davies: It was Government policy to leave by 29th March. The failure to leave by that date is a failure, isn’t it? It is a failure.

May: I wanted to leave on 29th March. I voted to leave on 29th March. Others voted to leave on 29th March. Sadly, not sufficient numbers in the House voted to leave on 29th March.

Davies: But it is a failure, isn’t it?

May: Well, people wanted us to leave on 29th March. We wanted to leave. We weren’t able to achieve that. What we must not fail in is leaving the European Union. We must ensure that we deliver on leaving the European Union. But as we’ve said, and as you’ve indicated you agree with, it is better to do that with a deal.

Watch a clip of those exchanges here.

Earlier in the session, Sir Bernard also put the Prime Minister on the spot to challenge her with the suggestion that she was “under no legally binding obligation of any kind” to accept the extensions to the Article 50 period offered to the UK by the EU. In respect of the first extension, she said “the Government took a decision that it was right and appropriate at that time to accept that extension”. Then, following the passing of that legislation to mandate her to seek the further extension, Sir Bernard pointed out to her that “You were obliged to seek an extension, but you were not obliged to accept an extension”. But she refused to accept that, replying: “I think if one is obliged to seek an extension, the expectation is that one is going to accept an extension”. Click here to watch that exchange.